a whale of a discovery

It often seems that the golden age of animal discovery is over. Oh, sure, there are still plenty of insects and microbes left to identify, and the occasional new frog species hops by, but finding a big mammal that’s new to science is pretty unlikely. But, remarkably, that’s exactly what Japanese researchers have done by discovering a new whale species. In the Nov. 20 Nature, Shiro Wada of the National Research Institute of Fisheries Science in Japan and colleagues report that they have identified mysterious specimens caught by a whaling research vessel almost 30 years ago as belonging to a new species of baleen whale, which they have dubbed Balaenoptera omurai. (Baleen whales do not have teeth; rather, they filter their food through comb-like baleen plates that hang from their upper jaws.) The researchers base their claim on DNA analysis as well as by comparing the shape of the whale’s skull and baleen to other species. Their analysis has also confirmed suspicions that the Bryde’s whale and Eden’s whale are also two separate species. If their findings turn out to be true, the number of living baleen whale species will have risen to eight.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 11/25/2003.
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